“We need to be faced with the reality of the world we live in and all its shapes, colours and intricacies,” said the actor. “This story and topic is so many people’s reality. Not distant strangers, but people living and walking by us every day.”
Next week’s episodes will see Bèllènéa’s character Mila Marwa confront her mum Nyangi (Lucy Vandi) about her beliefs on FGM in an attempt to convince her to not allow it to happen to her little sister Kioni (Florisa Kamara). It’s a conversation that leads to Mila opening up about the ritual cutting she too had to endure as a youngster.
“They’ve never talked about FGM and what happened,” Bèllènéa commented. “That trauma at such a young age and not knowing what to say as a child meant that it was easy to sweep under a carpet and let time compress the events into a box. So by opening the box, she fears her mother may shut down and dismiss her feelings, which will destroy Mila because it’ll be like telling her that her pain isn’t valid.”
Read more: What is FGM?
FGM is a procedure that results in the female genitals being cut or changed for no medical reason. It is often carried out before a girl experiences puberty and is now considered to be child abuse in the UK.
However, statistics issued by the World Health Organisation reveal that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where the practice is most predominant.
But in communities where the practice has become ingrained as a rite of passage to initiate into a girl into womanhood, it can be difficult for it to be challenged, while girls who refuse to comply may face stigma due to beliefs in FGM being a religious requirement.
As part of the EastEnders plotline, Mila has confided her fears in Kathy (Gillian Taylforth) and Iqra (Priya Davdra), with the latter set to consider calling the police in order to halt Nyangi’s plan for Kioni.
Mila, though, is reluctant for Iqra to do so and begs her to reconsider. When asked about her character’s inner conflict, Bèllènéa explained:
“Kathy and Iqra sympathise and understand the technicalities, but they don’t fundamentally understand Mila’s culture and the tradition of FGM. The two of them don’t focus on why there’s such a strong belief in it. They’re more concerned with the impact on the children who are being forced into a damaging procedure against their will and without consent.
“Because of Iqra’s instant response to call the police, Mila becomes reluctant to involve them anymore. She essentially feels that unless you live within her culture or go through it, you’ll always handle the situation like an outsider. Mila recognises that the subject is so layered.”
The NHS notes that FGM can seriously harm the health of the young women and girls who undergo the procedure, citing potential long-term problems with mental health, sex and childbirth.
Speaking about taking on such a weighty issue-based storyline, Bèllènéa said: “I immediately felt that responsibility but in the best possible way. And I want to make sure I focus more on the women’s version of events because they are who this is happening to. I’m aware of the need to get this right.
“EastEnders has made a brave and needed step in reflecting our society and hopefully it’ll encourage people to learn more about each other and ask questions in order to bring awareness.
“This community of women should be supported to look into organisations that are there to help them and provide the right medical attention that they need.”
Those concerned about someone who may be at risk should contact the NSPCC female genital mutilation helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For those in immediate danger, contact the police by dialling 999.